Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Chavismo’s Latest Target

NGOs are essential to Venezuelan society. A new law may lead to their collapse.

By , a Venezuelan journalist.
Women are seen making food and holding food containers in a kitchen.
Women are seen making food and holding food containers in a kitchen.
Women serve food in a community kitchen in Caracas on April 15, 2019. Nongovernmental organization Alimenta La Solidaridad runs community kitchens throughout the country. Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela—“I don’t have a fridge because the electric blackouts damaged mine,” said Juanita Estrada, an older Venezuelan woman, inside her small kitchen in La Vega, a hillside slum in Venezuela’s capital. “But,” she added, “we have never stopped preparing the food, despite all the obstacles.” Outside Estrada’s house, dozens of children were playing; and cooking pots full of vegetables, paella, plantains with cheese, and Lactokiana (a nutritional supplement) lay on top of a table covered with a flowery cloth.

Estrada is a local volunteer who works with Alimenta La Solidaridad (“Feed the Solidarity”), a nongovernmental organization that seeks to tackle malnutrition and offers educational opportunities for women and children. It provides food to 18,000 children, pregnant people, older adults, and people with disabilities through local volunteers, usually women, in 240 communities. The organization found Estrada a freezer when her fridge broke. “Thank God—and everyone [at Alimenta La Solidaridad],” she said.

NGOs are essential to Venezuelan society, because basic social services have collapsed amid the country’s decadelong humanitarian crisis—a product of the world’s biggest economic contraction outside of war in a half-century. “NGOs are the ones helping us—the ones that help vulnerable people in each community,” said Laura Mendoza, another volunteer for Alimenta La Solidaridad from La Vega. “It’s because of this NGO that we have managed to continue forward.”

CARACAS, Venezuela—“I don’t have a fridge because the electric blackouts damaged mine,” said Juanita Estrada, an older Venezuelan woman, inside her small kitchen in La Vega, a hillside slum in Venezuela’s capital. “But,” she added, “we have never stopped preparing the food, despite all the obstacles.” Outside Estrada’s house, dozens of children were playing; and cooking pots full of vegetables, paella, plantains with cheese, and Lactokiana (a nutritional supplement) lay on top of a table covered with a flowery cloth.

Estrada is a local volunteer who works with Alimenta La Solidaridad (“Feed the Solidarity”), a nongovernmental organization that seeks to tackle malnutrition and offers educational opportunities for women and children. It provides food to 18,000 children, pregnant people, older adults, and people with disabilities through local volunteers, usually women, in 240 communities. The organization found Estrada a freezer when her fridge broke. “Thank God—and everyone [at Alimenta La Solidaridad],” she said.

NGOs are essential to Venezuelan society, because basic social services have collapsed amid the country’s decadelong humanitarian crisis—a product of the world’s biggest economic contraction outside of war in a half-century. “NGOs are the ones helping us—the ones that help vulnerable people in each community,” said Laura Mendoza, another volunteer for Alimenta La Solidaridad from La Vega. “It’s because of this NGO that we have managed to continue forward.”

The ongoing crisis has left 3 in 4 Venezuelans living in extreme poverty, as of last year, and at least 22 percent of the country’s population undernourished. Venezuelans face near-constant blackouts and water shortages, among other hardships, which take an especially harsh toll on low-income areas like La Vega.

In this environment, NGOs “mitigate the collapse of public services, offer social protection, and generate information,” said Susana Raffalli, a nutritionist who advises various humanitarian organizations in Venezuela.

Yet the fate of Alimenta La Solidaridad, and Venezuela’s more than 600 other NGOs, is uncertain. For years, the government has attacked NGOs in the media and repeatedly denounced them as agents of the Western donors they largely rely on. Now, it appears to be cracking down on them. In May, a draft was leaked for a new Law on International Cooperation proposed by the National Assembly, which is controlled by Chavistas, or supporters of the ideology of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The law, which was immediately criticized by Venezuelan civil society, would create a new public agency in charge of promoting the state’s “activities of international cooperation.”

Under the law, NGOs in Venezuela would be forced to register with the new agency and reveal their beneficiaries and activities to the state. The agency would also create a fund where all international donations are held and make the decisions about which NGO activities to finance. Organizations would have six months to “adjust their forecasts and guidelines” to fit with rules created by the agency. This stipulation would potentially force them to align their activities with government policies and make them vulnerable to control, censorship, and even closure.

The proposed law, dubbed the “anti-solidarity law” by critics, is part of the ruling United Socialist Party’s push to control Venezuelan civil society, which has remained a breathing space for dissent as the regime took on political parties and then mass media. If it passes—which it may later this year—the law would only make it harder for NGOs to continue their work, leaving Venezuelans even more vulnerable to the country’s humanitarian crisis.


Unlike in some other countries ruled by far-left parties like Cuba and China, Venezuela’s organized civil society arose from decades of democratic life, according to Guillermo Tell Aveledo, a Venezuelan political scientist. This divide has led both the governments of President Nicolás Maduro and Chávez, his revolutionary predecessor, to consider the activities of many NGOs—from denouncing human rights violations to documenting environmental destruction and chronic malnutrition—to be hostile.

Moreover, Venezuelan public institutions have pursued a policy of opacity to control narratives about the country. For example, many ministries have stopped publishing data. “There’s an information blackout from the institutions that should document data,” said Héctor Navarro, the coordinator of Monitor de Víctimas (“Victims’ Monitor”), a project documenting violent deaths in Venezuela that is supported by Caracas Mi Convive, an anti-violence NGO.

In the government’s place, civil society initiatives such as Monitor de Víctimas and the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence generate data and share information. According to Navarro, Monitor de Víctimas has been one of the main sources for the United Nations’ human rights fact-finding mission in Venezuela and the reports of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. These reports led to Maduro’s government renaming and reducing the role of its deadly elite police force, known by the Spanish acronym FAES.

Yet NGOs don’t have enough resources to make up for the state’s absence in an economy that contracted by 86 percent between 2014 and 2020 and now has one of the lowest productivity levels in the Americas. “We are always subsidiary to—not substitutions for—the state,” Raffalli said. For example, the Catholic charity Caritas—one of Venezuela’s biggest humanitarian organizations—has worked with 26,000 children under the age of 5 and helped 12,000 to overcome malnutrition, according to Raffalli. Yet there are 2.6 million children within that age range in Venezuela, Raffalli said.

The proposed law is part of a new wave of political repression over the past two years.

In addition, NGOs face a series of challenges in Venezuela, including bureaucratic obstacles, talent flight to international NGOs or other countries, fuel shortages that hinder access to remote areas, and financial difficulties due to sanctions. A hostile government doesn’t help the situation.

Two years ago, government agents raided Alimenta La Solidaridad’s offices and froze the organization’s bank accounts. Last year, the government demanded that all NGOs register under a state bureau that purportedly sought to tackle terrorism and that they reveal the names of their donors and beneficiaries, though it quickly backtracked after domestic and international uproar ensued. And last week, when Provea—one of Venezuela’s oldest NGOs—organized a press conference with relatives of political prisoners, security agents arrived to intimidate the speakers. Provea’s spokesperson said the “unprecedented” harassment was “part of a higher escalation against human rights organizations.”

In La Vega, it can even be difficult for NGOs like Alimenta to establish new centers to make and provide food. The process, Mendoza said, is usually obstructed by communal councils—local boards of Chavista loyalists who make up the central government’s clientelist networks in low-income areas. The councils “portray us as oppositionists,” she said, and call the volunteers “smiley faces.” This refers to the yellow color that identifies Justice First, the opposition party to which Alimenta La Solidaridad’s and Mi Convive’s founder, Roberto Patiño, belongs. (Alimenta La Solidaridad is independent of Justice First, and most NGOs are not associated with political parties.)

The new NGO law would only make the situation worse. “It’s going to drive away international cooperation,” Raffalli said. In May, 500 NGOs and 200 activists signed a letter rejecting the proposed law, saying that it would reduce access to international assistance, politicize humanitarian aid, and violate freedom of association. Venezuelan human rights activists and journalists have compared the law to Russia’s “foreign agent” law and Nicaragua’s recent purge of nearly 200 NGOs.

The proposed law is part of a new wave of political repression over the past two years. First came judiciary interventions into the main opposition parties, when the Chavista-controlled highest court imposed boards on the parties that would be loyal to the ruling party. Then came a series of three proposed laws and reforms cracking down on civil society this year. Along with the NGO law, there have been two others: a social media law for supposed defamation and disinformation, and a reform of the Journalism Code of 1994 to fight the supposed lies of journalists. These are expected to be approved later this year or next year.

“Chavismo seeks to approve laws that are useful for extending its time in power,” said Andrés Cañizalez, director of Medianálisis, an NGO that promotes press freedom. For Cañizalez, these proposed laws and reforms are just another attempt by the government to “build the legal architecture to essentially make independent actors and oppositionists invisible while … excessively promoting its public figures and its control over the communication apparatus.”

Meanwhile, the government has shuttered more than 20 radio stations in recent months, mostly in states with opposition governors. “They are finishing little media hubs, local radio stations, where local and municipal politicians [from the opposition] have a space,” Cañizalez said. Last year, the government also imposed new school authorities on a leading public university after its dean died. The move was denounced as “arbitrary” by the Venezuelan Association of University Deans.

As Cañizalez said, Maduro and his fellow Chavistas feel that they “need to have everything under control” for the next presidential election in 2024, in which the opposition is participating after years of electoral abstention. This is all simply part of their plan to have “favorable conditions” once campaigning begins, he said.


For now, the proposed laws and reforms still need to be presented or approved in the National Assembly, where they will face internal tensions among different Chavista factions. Meanwhile, NGOs will continue to perform essential work in Venezuelan society, especially for the millions of people affected by food insecurity and extreme poverty.

“This is not an emergency, like an earthquake or a landslide, but something of slow progression,” said Raffalli. “There’s a profound exhaustion in our team—a team that is tired of working and working without seeing any forecast of when this [crisis] will end.”

Outside a classroom in La Vega that Alimenta uses as an educational day care, where volunteers had set up a dining hall to cook for children, Jessika Díaz, a local volunteer, explained that Alimenta La Solidaridad and feminist NGO Soy Mujer (“I Am Woman”) are still working to educate women in the community about human rights, peaceful conflict resolution, and gender-based violence. “[NGOs] have opened a lot of doors to us,” she said.

In the same dining hall, Judith Arcia, another volunteer, explained that one of Alimenta La Solidaridad’s programs provides purple cards with phone numbers that victims of gender-based violence can call for help. One of her daughter’s friends suffered constant physical abuse from her husband, she said, so “I gave her the card and told her: You’re not alone.” Later, they filed a complaint against the woman’s husband at the district attorney’s office.

Alimenta La Solidaridad “empowers us,” said Mendoza as she gathered with the other volunteers. For Mendoza, who is “completely against” the anti-solidary law, the loss of NGOs would be “very rough.”

In the classroom behind her, a paper banner on the classroom wall read: “Ensuring a safe place of love and happiness to achieve a productive, democratic, and solidarity-driven Venezuela.”

Tony Frangie-Mawad is a Venezuelan journalist. He’s written about politics and Venezuela for Bloomberg, the Economist, Politico, Caracas Chronicles, and other publications. He recently launched Venezuela Weekly, an English-language newsletter. Twitter: @TonyFrangieM

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